70. BAÏLÈRO – Canteloube from Songs of the Auvergne (as sung by Kiri te Kanawa)



This is definitely one of my ‘happy’ songs – but I only tend to play it when I’m up in my shed/study/den/man-cave at the top of the garden, because that’s where I have it on a little cassette.  Let me tell you about that little cassette tape.

Isn’t it true that sometimes the greatest songs and the most beautiful pieces of music we seem to stumble across by accident? – and somehow that kind of adds to their magic and charm.  When we lived in Paraguay, it was notable that when non-indigenous colleagues and friends returned to their own countries after their period of work there, they would often want to offload items they no longer deemed necessary, or didn’t want to pack to take back.  Sometimes, in a way that I hope didn’t appear too ghoulish, those of us who remained might sort of sidle up, ‘help to pack’ in ways that meant we might pick up a few little items (no? Oh, just me then).  Anyway, thanks dear Nigel and Ally for a lovely red sleeping bag, and for this cassette tape by Kiri te Kanawa, showcasing music I had never heard before, or even heard of.

Joseph Canteloube was apparently as much of a musicologist as a composer, and I think this means  that he was as fascinated by songs as I am!  I’m joking – he was much more fascinated, because he actually got off his backside and went around the country ‘collecting’ songs that had developed and emerged through the oral tradition.  Yes, in other words he was a bit of a French Cecil Sharp, I suppose.  He went and collected throughout the region of the Auvergne, and then presumably took his collection and composed beautiful orchestrated versions of the songs. So the little tape was ‘Kiri te Kanawa sings Chants d’Auvergne by Joseph Canteloube’, and this song is the big ‘hit’ of the collection!

I’ve seen it called ‘Pastoral’, ‘Shepherd’s Song’, but most often ‘Baïlèro’, with its funny accents and all, because of course the songs are all in the local lingo, Occitan (thanks Wikipedia).  I think I may have assumed, listening to this first of all in a Spanish speaking country, that the title definitely had something to do with dancing (Spanish ‘bailar’ to dance), but no, from all the transcripts and translations I’ve seen, it appears that bailero and the frequently repeated ‘lero lero lero’ in the song is nothing more than your average kind of ‘fal-de-ri’ or ‘fa-la-la’ folk song filler!  But the repetition of those beautiful spilled out liquid sounds is part of this song’s glorious charm, for me.

These songs of course are filled with the staple diet of good rustic folk song- rather less murder, sprites and such than might appear in their rustic English counterparts – but plenty of shepherds and shepherdesses, hard work, harvesting, seducing, and unrequited love.  And it may seem a bit funny that I have called it one of my ‘happy songs,’ for apparently what we have in this particular song is the pining of a shepherd separated from a shepherdess (or vice versa?) by a river, and resigned to singing some melancholy but maybe hopeful(?) lero lero leros.

But there you go – sadness when depicted by the artist, the writer, the composer, is often heartbreakingly beautiful, and so – perversely – solidly life affirming, and happiness making!

As a kind of footnote…  I had also assumed that Kiri te Kanawa must have claimed this particular bit of music/song territory as her own, and certainly as I have played and replayed (and ‘lero’ed along to) that cassette tape up in my shed, it’s been hard to imagine anyone bettering her vocal interpretation!  But, dear reader, if you are at all interested/intrigued or can be bothered, the magic of youtube allows us to sample other singers taking on this particular classic.  I’m not sure that my ear is good enough to distinguish great from greater…  but take a listen –none of them disappoint, and some are accompanied by very nice pictures of the Auvergne!



69. MISS OTIS REGRETS – Ella Fitzgerald

If I had been aware of this song, and I probably was, I don’t remember being really aware of it until I heard it in a really odd setting: some guy  – sorry, no idea of his name – who ‘opened’ for Ralph McTell at a concert in the 1980s (St David’s Hall, Cardiff) included this song in his small set.  It was his speciality, I think, taking old Great American Songbook standards, and singing them in an semi- folkie setting, to an exquisitely handled acoustic guitar.  So, behind the song, the guitar work was all minor sevenths and ninths etc; he brought all the melancholy he could from it; and it was beautiful.  And then I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s version of it.

I’m not sure that I would have liked Cole Porter.  I’m not even sure where I’ve picked up these impressions, that I have the feeling that he was all urbane wit, cleverness and musical talent sold to glittering slick city hedonism, etc. (Envious, moi?)  And, just gleaning bits of myth and trivia from various websites about the origin of this song, one story goes that in one of these very same high class uptown society party soirees, someone challenged Cole Porter to come up with a song employing these random words ‘miss Otis regrets’; a more credible variant of the story suggests that he was challenged to write off the cuff a kind of parody of a popular country and western style song .  Whatever, it’s quite weird to think of the genesis of this song as something a bit show-offy, improvisational, almost throwaway.  Because, however it started, it has certainly become something else.

How far Cole Porter influenced the development and evolution of the song’s popularity, who sang it and when, I don’t really know.  Let’s forget about him for a moment and just think of the song.  It’s interesting that the best versions of it have been by black singers: no, that’s naive –it was inevitable, because the persona of the song is understood to be of the servant class –inevitably Afro American in the 1930s ‘society’ America.  Porter (sorry, I said I wouldn’t mention him) put the song in the mouth of a black butler in one of his lesser known musicals.  In 1934 Ethel Waters recorded a still poignant version of the song.  Ella didn’t record her version until two decades later, and it is part of her classic ‘Cole Porter songbook’ recordings.  More about this in a moment.

When I say ‘interesting’, perhaps I’m thinking of the fact that some of the strange and incongruous resonances of the song have more startling poignancy coming from African-American lips .  The premise of the song, perhaps hilariously comic in the original cocktail-fuelled setting of that Manhattan dinner party, is that the seduced and wronged woman driven to jealous murder is not some simple country girl from a cowboy story, but –we assume –some sophisticated high society lady; the sordid tale is not blazed as society scandal, but modestly narrated by a faithfully formal servant as ‘excuse’ for the lady’s non-appearance at a social engagement (!); and the punishment for her crime is not some expensive legal battle fought on her behalf by city attorneys, but an ignominious lynching.  And there, of course, in that particular incongruity resides the particular potency of hearing these words from a black American female voice. ‘Strange Fruit’ in an affluent white society setting.

It’s become fashionable, I reckon, to regard Ella Fitzgerald’s voice as just a little bit too controlled; I hear people suggesting that Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holliday are far more ‘authentic’ jazz voices, but I’m OK with Ella’s ‘control’ –it’s a thing of beauty –she could scat-sing with the best of them when she wanted to, but she brought an extraordinary sensitivity to some songs that not everybody could have done.  Like this one – and while most of her Cole Porter recordings have sumptuous orchestral accompaniments, this one has a single piano, as if somehow to accentuate its dark charm –those few simple, repetitive verses, the ’spareness’ of the tragic tale in its ‘formal’ narrative. That’s all. Madam.